I find these kinds of stories fascinating. People choosing to ‘live poor’ (though of course with the capacity to leave when they want to, and also while equipped with the education, networks and self-esteem that a life of opportunity has bestowed upon them) – in order to liberate themselves from debt, be less wasteful and more environmentally ethical, to challenge materialism and test their fortitude.
From Ken Ilgunas in Salon about his efforts to gain a private university education without going into debt:
Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could — in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility — afford the unaffordable: an education.
I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mother, who, appalled by my experiment, offered to rent me an apartment each time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag; my air conditioning, an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And — for fear of being caught — I wouldn’t tell anybody.
Living on the cheap wasn’t merely a way to save money and stave off debt; I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between my wants and my needs.
And lest you think it is a boys’ own adventure, this from Katherine Hibbert in The Guardian about her year of living without an income:
I had set out to live for free for 12 months, but when my time was up I had no desire to stop. The flat I lived in was comfortable, and my flatmates and I had been in it for months with no threat of eviction. Finding food was no hassle. I slept as much as I liked, read as much as I liked and went out, walking in the park or visiting galleries. My parents had stopped worrying about me.
These simple living arrangements are genuinely adventurous undertakings, and read as such. They are thought-provoking and inspiring, and maybe also… a little fashionable. Living green is the new black. But for those of us who have lived in actual honest to goodness poverty they can also be somewhat bemusing. Being raised on a single parent benefit didn’t so much give me the piety of poverty as an early introduction to the exhausting fear that comes with financial insecurity. If you want to really know what it is like to ‘drop in on’ poverty then these simple living articles aren’t really your guide – much more compelling doses of empathy can be found in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Jack London’s classic People of the Abyss. In a way, the simple living articles are less intended to teach you about poverty than to teach you about being affluent and how you could live better and more soundly with your affluence.
I often find myself wondering what the same living experiments would be like with children along for the ride. So I was pleased to be shown an article with exactly that angle, from Susie Arnett at Kindred about her family’s choice to move into a trailer in order to survive on the income of one artist :
But at 320 square feet, the Mallard is small. When Kim brushes his teeth, the entire trailer shakes.
After the kids finally go to sleep in their new bunk beds, we realize how really small it is. There’s a cupboard right over the bed that we need to duck under to lay down. The built-in closet sits against the foot of the bed, which means Kim cannot straighten his 6 foot 2 inch frame. A thin, cotton curtain separates us from our children who are sleeping 25 feet away. If Ely woke up and stuck his head out from behind the curtain, he could see our feet and calves. Any hopes of loud, raucous sex are dashed. Besides, wouldn’t the neighbors see the trailer moving up and down? We move slowly and quietly, the way you do when you’re visiting your parent’s house during college with your boyfriend.
Going from 1500 square feet to 320 square feet means we have to get rid of things. We begin by paring down our enormous collection of plastic toys. Ely and Everly’s primary “toys” now are the things they find outside – like sticks, rocks and dirt. (Fortunately, we live in a place where the things you find outdoors are relatively harmless). Ely has grown very attached to a certain stick. He carries it around constantly. Sometimes, it’s a sword he uses to chase the rabbits at dusk. Other days, it’s a fishing pole for catching sharks.
Because of our limited space, we spend the entire day outside. The yard is now our living room and dining room.
(Cross-posted at blue milk).